Oxblood Lilies (Rhodophiala bifida)

Each fall in Central Texas, bright red trumpets herald the approach of autumn.  These trumpets are the deep red flowers of the Oxblood lily. 

Oxbloods in my front bed

Oxblood lilies seem to be a bit of a regional secret.  I grew up in Waco and I was not familiar with them until I moved to Brenham.  The house that we bought was on an almost bald hill.  The previous owner was not much of a gardener.  However, he apparently liked bulbs.  The first fall that we were there, we discovered that he had left us red spider lilies (Lycoris radiate), yellow spider lilies (lycoris aurea) and oxbloods.  I instantly fell in love with these extraordinary plants.

This close up of oxbloods is from "The Southern Bulb Company"

Oxbloods are often called Schoolhouse Lilies because the bulbs send up their stalks right around the start of the school year.  Like rain lilies, their bloom is in response to the first fall rains. However, since there have been no fall rains this year, they will apparently also bloom in response to a good fall watering.  Another of their common names is Hurricane Lily.  Since most of the rain that falls in the Gulf South in August is the result of a late season hurricane, this is also a very appropriate name.

Oxbloods are native to South America.  An early German-Texan horticulturist named Peter Oberwetter is believed to be the first to import the oxbloods from Argentina.  Due to his efforts, the oxblood has been very popular in the areas of Texas originally settled by German settlers.  While they are gaining acceptance around the South and Central US, they have flourished in places like Brenham, La Grange, Independence, Round Top and Austin for the last 150 years.

Here the initial foliage of the oxblood is clearly visible.

Oxbloods naturalize and reproduce readily.  In fact, they are so hardy and so prolific that Scott Ogden says “No other bulb can match the fierce vigor, and adaptability of the oxblood lily”.    Because of their “tenacity and adaptability”, oxbloods have become one of the most common “pass along plants” in Texas.  Most of the people that have them got them as a division from someone else.  Finding a friend with a well established bed is still the best way to get them for your own garden as they are somewhat difficult to find in the nursery trade.  However, some specialty bulb growers like The Southern Bulb Company(http://www.southernbulbs.com/OxbloodLily/) now offer them for sale on line.

Black, long necked oxblood bulbs harvested with Grand Primo Narcissus this past spring

Oxbloods are very easy to grow and they are very reliable.  Their growth habit is just like that of other fall blooming bulbs.  The flowers appear on a single “bald” stalk in the fall.  The stalk is often accompanied by two long leaves.  After the flowers die, the rest of the foliage begins to appear.  The foliage grows into a clump of long, thin, deep green leaves that resemble mondo or lariope that lasts until June.  After that, the foliage dies back and the bulbs become dormant.  So, if you are going to divide them, June is the optimal time.  However, unlike many other bulbs, they can be dug and divided just about any time.

Oxblood bulbs have a dark black skin that makes them fairly easy to identify.  The bulbs prefer full sun but can tolerate light shade.  In fact, most of the ones I see are massed around the trunks of old live oaks.  Oxbloods do best in rich, well drained soil but they will grow in just about anything.  Plant your mature bulbs about three inches deep with the neck slightly exposed.   Medium and smaller bulbs can be planted at little more shallow.  Once planted, water regularly for the first year.  Once established, they will survive (and even thrive) on normal rainfall.

REALLY Bad News for Texas

This courtesy of the National Weather Service

I am an optimistic person.  I always believe everything will work itself out in time.  However, I just read “The SciGuy” column by Eric Berger in the “Houston Chronicle”.  OMG!  According to this article, if you think things are bad now, wait.  There is a 50/50 chance the drought is going to get worse.  My optimism is beginning to fade.

Chart courtesy of the Texas Water Development Board

Please click the link above and read this article.  It is truly frightening.  Even though it says we are not going to get a break on the current heat wave and there is a 50/50 chance the drought will continue, the really scary part of the article has to do with our reservoirs.  In January, our water reservoirs were at 91% capacity.  Today they are at 64%.  So, if my math is right, Texas has used about 1/3 of its surface water in the past eight months.  That is truly frightening to me.

This drought has taken a huge toll on my yard, beds and gardens.  I really don’t know how we will survive another year of it.  If it is all I can do to keep a few beds alive right now, I cannot imagine what it will be like if we don’t get a ton of rain this fall and winter.  This is truly going to be devastating to those of us whose hobby relies on water.  And the poor farmers and ranchers!  I cannot even imagine the financial impact this is going to have on them.  At this point, all I can do is reiterate what Rick Perry said last month; “Pray for rain!”

Mustang Grape Wine in 3 Easy Steps

Back in December, I did a post that described the process for bottling our homemade wine.  In that post, I promised to do describe how we made the wine.  Well, here is that promise fulfilled.  Last year, we made 5 gallons of mustang (or muscadine) wine.  This year, we are making five more.  However, due to bit of luck, we are making 15 additional gallons of wine from the finest Spanish grapes grown in Washington County.  The method I use was taught to me by Marvin Marberger of Brenham, Texas.  Mr. Marberger uses an old timey method that has been passed down through several generations of his German family.  Mr. Marberger has been making wine for a long time.  He can make wine from just about anything that has juice.  Currently, he has 17 varieties in his house that include tomato, dewberry, peach and lots more.  The process that he (and I) uses has three simple steps and uses just three ingredients; juice, water and sugar.

The wine that is made through this method is a VERY sweet table wine.  While it is probably not going to win any awards, it is very drinkable.  I drink it over ice and my wife and female kids (I say kids, they range in age from 21 to 31) like it mixed with a little Sprite.  It is a good thing that my friends and family like this sweet, homemade wine.  One five gallon container makes twenty five 750 ml bottles of wine.  Since I am currently making 20 gallons of wine I am going to need to come up with 100 empty bottles and corks by Christmas!

My daughter and I are harvesting our wild grapes

Harvest – Mustang grapes are ready for harvest in our area around July 4th.  So, before we can head out to the Round Top 4th of July parade, we have to make sure that we have five to six gallons of wild grapes collected.  Mustang grapes seem to grow on just about every fence row in the county so they are very easy to find.  You should, of course, ask permission to pick from the land owner.  They are almost always happy to oblige and they love getting a bottle of the finished product as a Thank You.

Mustang grapes do not produce the large clusters that other varieties produce.  So, you are going to have to do a lot of picking.  This year it took about two hours for me, my wife, two daughters, and one son-in-law to pick the six gallons that are required for this recipe.  As an added bonus, I also picked up a pretty wicked case of poison ivy.

Picking out the leaves and trash from our freshly picked grapes

Once the grapes are harvested, mash them ASAP.  Do not wash them before you mash.  The yeast needed for the fermentation process is lying on the skins of those wild grapes and you will need it for this process to work.  It is not necessary to remove the stems before you mash.  Simply fill a five gallon bucket with the grapes and mash into a pulp with a wooden implement of your choice.  Some folks use a 2”X4”.  I use an old baseball bat.  You can use your hands or feet to mash the grapes but they have a very high acid content and you will wind up with very itchy hands and feet if you choose this method.  Once the grapes are mashed, cover tightly with clean cloth or plastic wrap to keep the bugs out.

My wife and daughter mashing the grapes

Primary Fermentation – Once your mashed grapes are covered you can put them on a porch or in the garage to let the initial fermentation process begin.  The natural yeast on the skins will begin to reproduce.  This creates carbon dioxide.  You will know that fermentation is occurring if you see bubbles coming up through the mixture or if you have a strong smell of grape juice permeating the area in which the grapes are fermenting.

This is what the “must” looks like when primary fermentation is complete. The pulp has risen to the top and the juice is in the bottom.

This process should be allowed to proceed for about two weeks.  During this time, the tannins and the color of the grapes are being transferred to the liquid.  As the process progresses, the pulp, stems, seeds and skins will separate and float on the top.  Sometimes a light mold will begin to grow on the top of this mash.  If you see any signs of mold, pull the liquid off immediately.

Secondary Fermentation- The last step in the process is when the wine is actually made.  First, siphon the liquid from the first step into a clean container.  I use a food grade, six gallon bucket purchased from a restaurant supply store.  Siphoning is important.  You want to reduce the amount of pulp and sediment that would be passed to the secondary fermentation container without the use of the siphon.  Once I have the juice pulled off, I check to ensure that I have at least six quarts of juice.

Here I am siphoning the juice into the first filter

After I ensure that I have enough juice, I begin filtering.  I have a large cone shaped colander used in canning.   I line this with cheese cloth and strain the juice from one container into another.  When this is done, I strain the juice a second time by lining the colander with a grease filter also purchased from the restaurant supply store.  If the second round of filtering contained a lot of pulp, I strain again.

The secondary filteration process

Now that I have six quarts of double strained grape juice in my food grade container (which has very handy measurements on the side), I add in the sugar.  This recipe calls for 10 pounds.  I pour the sugar directly into the juice and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved.   Once the sugar is dissolved, I add enough filtered water to the mixture to make the volume exactly five gallons in the food grade container.  Once this has been stirred again, I use a funnel to pour the five gallons of liquid into a clear plastic water bottle.

Here you can see the setup that I use for an airlock

Once the mixture is in the bottle it is time to add the air lock.  My airlock is very simple in nature.  I use a large, solid rubber stopper with a 3/8” inch hole drilled in the center.  I then feed an 18” length of clear, rubber 3/8” hose into the stopper.  Next, I fill a plastic water or coke bottle ¾ of the way full with water.  The lid of this bottle also has a 3/8” hole drilled in it.  Tape the water bottle to the neck of the 5 gallon water bottle and then feed the rubber hose through the lid and all the way to the bottom of the bottle.

And that’s it!  Once the airlock is in place, place the wine back on the porch or in the garage and let the secondary fermentation begin.  In two to three days you will begin to see bubbles in the airlock.  These bubbles are caused by the carbon dioxide that is being released during fermentation.

Your wine is ready for bottling when there are no more bubbles passing through the airlock.  This can take as little as two months and as long as five.  You want to be absolutely sure that all fermentation has stopped before you bottle your wine.  If not, you can literally get “explosive” results.

It does not hurt your wine to sit in the secondary fermentation container for several months.  Because of this, I do not bottle my wine until Christmas.  This ensures that the fermentation is complete and it also gives me a ready supply of child labor (since all of my “kids” come home for the holidays) to help with the bottling process.

Homemade wine is fun, easy and inexpensive to make.  You can start with zero supplies and create your first batch for less than $50.  The second batch will only set you back the cost of the sugar.  All of my friends love receiving our homemade wine as gifts.  Even though I enjoy drinking the wine, I really get the most enjoyment from giving it away.  And, at less than $2 per bottle, we can spread a lot of holiday cheer to a lot of friends without breaking the bank!


Preparing the Zone 9 Fall Garden

Even though it was 106 yesterday, it is time to get your zone 9 gardens ready for fall planting. I have to admit, with all of the talk of water restrictions, I am debating how much of a garden I am going to have this fall. I really cannot imagine not planting a garden, but I do think that I am going to scale back. No row garden for me this fall. Instead, I will be doing all of my planting in my potager (if you are a reader of Texas Gardener magazine, check out this month’s article that details how I built my potager).

Carrots and lettuce love the cooler weather of fall.

Preparation – Before you plant, you need to get the garden ready. For me, this is a fairly simple process. I practice no till gardening in my potager. So, to get my beds ready I do the following things. Note: these steps work well for flower beds as well. Since most beds have a mix of annuals and perennial, they are typically no till as well.

1. Remove all plant material that is left over from the spring garden. If you have not pulled up those cucumber or pole bean vines, then now is the time to do it. Also, if there is plant litter on the ground, remove it and destroy it (burn if you can, haul off if there is a burn ban). Old plant litter can hold a lot of pests that can “bug” you in the fall and then again in the spring. Squash Bugs over winter in plant litter so DO NOT move this debris to the compost pile. The squash bugs will actually thrive in the warm compost environment and be ready for another invasion in the spring.

2. Remove weeds. Thank goodness, weeds are not as aggressive in the fall. A good weeding now will reduce the number of times you will have to weed in the fall and winter. If there are no seed heads on the weeds that you pull, go ahead and put them on the compost heap.

3. Fertilize. Since I grow organically, I fertilize with various forms of compost. I use primarily mushroom compost but I will occasionally add in composted cow manure, rabbit manure, cotton bur compost and an alfalfa and humate blend. All of these are good sources of nitrogen. However, for good flower production (and ultimately vegetable production) you also need phosphorus. I use rock phosphate. Also, don’t forget about the potassium. Potassium (or potash) helps plants use water. Clay soils generally have enough of this in our area. However, since we are in a drought, I am going to add a little supplemental potassium this year. The best source of potassium for the organic garden is greensand. You can also add wood ash but it is high in lime so it can lower your pH.

Cabbage, and all brassicas, thrive here in the fall

Planting – In my humble opinion, fall is the best time of the year to garden in Texas. The temperatures are falling to a bearable level, the rains generally pick up and weeds are not nearly as much of a problem. Also, my favorite vegetables are the brassicas that thrive in the Texas fall. Patty Leander creates the planting guide for the Travis County Agrilife Extension office.  Click the link below to see here updated planting guide for our area.

Texas A&M AgriLife’s Vegetable Planting Guide by Patty Leander


Turnips are a two for one deal in the fall garden. Both the turnip and the greens are delicious and nutritious.

Guara (Guara lendheimeri)

Pink guara growing in my front bed

If you are looking for a plant that is tough as nails and blooms from spring through fall, then guara may be a fit for your garden.  Gaura is a Texas native that loves full sun and tolerates drought.  I have learned to appreciate its drought tolerance this summer.  Right now, I am pouring the water to my beds.  While it is keeping things alive, nothing is thriving.  Nothing that is, except the guara.

The guara that I have is a pink variety known as Onagraceae  Guara lindheimeri.  This variety grows natively in the Texas Hill country.  As the name implies, guara was first “discovered” by Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer.  Lindheimer is known as the father of Texas botany.  He worked as the first botanist in the state primarily between 1843 and 1852.  Because of his extensive life-long work with plants, his name has now been assigned to 48 species and sub species of plants.

The delicate pink flowers of my guara

There are 20 species of guara that are native to the United States.  This perennial can be found in Texas, Louisiana, and most of the Gulf South.  Gaura is an upright growing plant that grows in clumps that can be 2’ to 4’ high and just as wide.  The leaves are long and skinny with slightly serrated leaves.  The plant produces long, thin stalks that are often red to burgundy in color.  The inch long flowers have four petals and grow along these stems.  The flowers can range in color from white to deep magenta and they drop after full bloom.  Some varieties bloom white and then turn to pink in a single day.  Many times, the flowers grow on the ends of the stems.  When viewed from a distance, the flowers on the terminal ends of the stalks appear to be tiny butterflies “dancing” above the plant.  This gives rise to its common name; Whirling Butterflies.

Guara is very easy to grow from transplants.  Plant in early spring in full sun or partial shade.  It prefers rich, well drained soil and it will tolerate alkaline conditions.  It grows quickly and by early summer you will have a fairly large and attractive plant.  By fall, your guara will be a large full clump of “Whirling Butterflies”.

Guara can reseed but it is not an aggressive self seeder.  You can also divide guara once it has been established for several years.  However, it develops a deep tap root and this can make transplanting a bit of a challenge.

A lovely white form at the Spoetzel Home in Schulenberg, Texas.

Gaura is an attractive long blooming perennial that is perfect for the Texas border.  Its open, airy foliage is attractive even when not in bloom.  It flowers prolifically from spring through fall and butterflies and humming birds love the small flowers.  While it may not be the flashiest plant in the garden, it is tough and reliable.  The way it has continued to thrive in spite of the worst drought in our history has convinced me to use more of this survivor in my beds.  Why don’t you try some in yours?

Hymenocallis and The Girl's Tomato Clubs

A lovely hymenocallis border around an out building at the Milam County Museum.

This weekend, my wife and I were returning from my 30th class reunion in Waco.  On the way home we passed through Cameron, Texas .  Cameron is a charming little town full of friendly folks and beautiful Victorian homes. It is also the county seat of Milam County.   Since we love old homes and old courthouses, we decided to ride around and do a little exploring.  We quickly found our way to the courthouse and happened on two very fortuitous finds.

The Texas State Historical Marker honoring Edna Trigg and the Girl's Tomato Clubs

Girl’s Tomato Clubs – Our first “find” was a state historical sign that was erected to honor the accomplishments of Mrs. Edna Westbrook Trigg and the Girl’s Tomato Clubs of Texas (for more information check out my article in Hort Update).  Exactly one hundred years ago, Mrs. Trigg started the first all girl agricultural clubs in Texas.  These clubs were established as a way to introduce rural youth to the latest in agricultural practices.  There were several of these types of clubs throughout the south during this time and they were collectively called “canning clubs”.   According to Marie Comer (founder of the Girl’s Tomato Clubs in South Carolina) these clubs were established to “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.”

From the start, these clubs paid special attention to improving the heart, head and hands of the members.  If you recognize that last phrase, you should.  It is the original motto of 4H.  I add this because these “canning clubs” were the precursors of the modern 4H organizations that we are all familiar with.

Lovely hymenocallis at the Milam County Museum

Hymenocallis – The other thing that I “discovered” in Cameron was an incredible hedge of hymenocallis growing around the perimeter of the Milam County Museum.  This museum is the old county jail.  During its operation, it housed both inmates and the family of the county sheriff.  Today it is furnished much like it was before it became a museum.  The museum had three incredibly beautiful borders filled with a very beautiful variety of hymenocallis.

Hymenocallis is a large scale plant.  Some varieties can reach four feet.  They have large, smooth, glossy, deep green foliage that looks great even when the plant is not blooming.  The flowers are large, white cups with long, “spidery” stamens.  Some people call hymenocallis spider lily or swamp lily.  However, they are not lilies at all.  Hymenocallis are members of the same plant family as amaryllis.  There are 63 varieties that are native to the tropical areas of the Americas.  One variety of interest to us in the Lone Star state is called the “Texan Spider Lily” (Hymenocallis liriosme).  The “Texan Spider Lily” has large white flowers with yellow centers and blooms throughout the summer.

A hymencallis border at the Milam County Museum. With foliage this lovely, who needs flowers?

You can plant Hymenocallis bulbs in the spring or the fall. They should be planted 4” to 6” deep with the neck of the bulb exposed.  Space the bulbs 1’ apart in full sun or partial shade.  They like well drained soil that has been deeply worked with organic material.  Water regularly but do not over water.  1” per week should be fine.  Hymencallis also do well as potted plants.

If you have never been to Cameron, you should make time to visit.  It is a lovely community that is close to Waco, Temple, Bryan-College Station and of course, Brenham.  In addition to the museum, Cameron hosts the annual Dewberry Festival in the spring.  It also has several antique bridges, a miniature model of the city, and many large scale murals on downtown buildings. It is also home to Ideal Poultry.  They are the largest producer of backyard poultry in the country.  So, if you are looking for something to do on one of these last hot summer weekends, load up the camera and head to Cameron.  Who knows what you will find!

One of the murals in downtown Cameron. This one honors the dairy industry and milk producing plant that was once there. Notice the shape of Texas in the cow's spots.

Eight Ways to Stretch Your Garden Dollars

Right now, times are tough and everyone is looking for ways to save money.  Gardeners are no exception.  Gardening is a lot of fun and almost 5 million Americans practice some sort of gardening at their homes.  However, if you are not careful, your little garden can wind up costing you a lot of money.  Whether you grow vegetables or ornamentals, these timely tips will allow you to get the most out of your garden without draining your bank account.

A bunch of narcissus and oxbloods given to me by a friend

Publicize – If you love to garden, tell people.  You will be surprised how much stuff people will give you once the word is out that you like to grow stuff.   I have a friend that inherited an old home.  The previous owners were avid gardeners and the abandoned yard is full of heirloom plants and bulbs.  When she found out that I love old fashioned plants, she told me I could have anything I could dig up.  So far I have harvested literally hundreds of daffodil, spider lily, oxblood lily and crinum bulbs.  I have also transplanted some yaupons.  I am going back this fall to get some flowering quince and crepe myrtles. 

My row garden with hay mulch

Mulch – If you have read much of my blog, you know I am a big fan of mulch.  Mulch reduces the amount of water you use, so lower water bills.  It also suppresses weeds, so less is spent on herbicides.  Mulch can be expensive if you buy it in bags.  That’s why I never do that.  I buy my mulch in bulk.  Each year I buy three different types of mulch.  I get hardwood mulch from my local landfill.  I drive up in my truck and they load me up.  I pay a very modest 1 cent per pound for this mulch.  I use this hardwood mulch in my flower beds in the early spring.  I buy it then because the “mulch” that is in the landfill has generally been sitting there composting since fall.  So, if you buy in early spring, you get mulch that already has a good percentage of it that has already turned to compost.

I also buy mushroom compost in bulk.  I get mine delivered from a local firm.  While it is a little pricey initially, it is the best money I spend all year.  My last load of mushroom compost cost me $320 for a ten cubic yard dump truck load.  While it is technically compost, I use it much like you would use mulch.  I practice no till gardening in my kitchen garden.  I simply put several inches of this on top of my beds either right before or after planting.  Even though it is pre-composted, it continues to break down in the garden and supply vital nitrogen and other essential nutrients to the plants.  It also suppresses weeds and conserves moisture. 

I also use a lot of hay as mulch in my vegetable gardens.  Hay can be expensive if you buy the little square bales.  However, you can usually find round bales for anywhere from $50 to $80 and the farmer will usually deliver.  A round bale contains as much hay as 10-12 square bales.  When you buy hay or straw to use as mulch, be sure to ask the farmer if it has been treated with any herbicides.  Some of the herbicides sprayed today can linger in the hay and will kill your vegetables if used as mulch.

Several trays of azelia cuttings that I helped a friend of mine prepare

Propagate – Propagation is by far the cheapest way to increase your plant material outside of someone giving you plants.  Propagation is generally pretty easy.  A quick Google search will provide you with very good instructions and very good videos to watch so you can see exactly how it is done.  Some plants are incredibly easy to propagate.  Roses are one of these.  Other plants that are very easy are coleus, sweet potato vine, lantana, coral honeysuckle and many more.  Also, all of the bulbs that naturalize here can be divided every two or three years.  Simply dig them up in the fall, pull them apart and replant.

An old "cowboy bathtub" repurposed as a planter

Reuse – My wife and I are “junkers”.  We love going to garage and estate sales.  We find a lot of very useful things for the garden at very cheap prices at these sales.  Almost all of my gardening tools came from estate sales.  So did my big tiller.  Another thing that we are always on the lookout for are old galvanized buckets.  We use these as planters.  We also buy almost every terra cota pot that we find.

Compost – If you don’t have a compost pile, start one.  Compost is truly an amazing gift to your garden.  It is easy to make and it does so much for your plants and your soil.  There are a million ways to compost, so pick one and just do it.  I make my own compost.  However, I just don’t generate enough to meet all of my needs.  However, I garden on a fairly large scale.  If you have a small garden or if you only grow in containers, you can probably make enough free fertilizer and soil conditioner from your kitchen and yard waste to meet your needs.

Be creative – I love to tackle little landscaping projects around my house.  I would do a lot more if landscaping materials weren’t so expensive.  Since I don’t have a large budget to support my hobby, I am always looking at magazines and other landscapes to find cheap alternatives for my landscaping designs.  A perfect example of this happened the other day.  While at a garage sale, my wife found a HUGE box full of those old glass insulators from electric lines.  We bought the whole lot for $20.  There were well over 100 insulators in the box.  We are going put Christmas lights inside them and use them to line one of our paths.  We will have a very cute and cool night light set up in the garden and all it will wind up costing us less than $50.

My wife enjoying a Framer's Market in Tulsa, Ok

Buy off season – Right now is the best time to buy perennials.  Nurseries that have not sold all of their spring stock now have whatever is left DRAMATICALLY marked down.  You will find sales of up 75% off at most nurseries and garden centers right now in the hottest part of the year.  Sure the plants you buy will need a little extra TLC to get them safely into the fall, but for 75% off, the extra TLC is worth it.

Sell your harvest – Finally, if you do so well in your frugal garden that you can’t use all that you grow, sell it!  That’s right.  Sell the bounty from your garden and actually make a little on your hobby.  Right now, the demand for locally grown, organic produce and flowers has never been higher.  Just about every city and town in America now has a Farmer’s Market of some kind.  Booth rent at these markets is usually very low and you will be surprised at how much you can sell.